While the cliffside holes are extraordinary as advertised (I’ll say plenty about the now-famous 16th and 17th), the variety of landscapes on this property is an incredible strength and the routing takes advantage of it. There’s a long stretch of coastline and the routing returns to it at several points. There’s also a section of the property with sand dunes next to an inland lake, which we play through twice. The rest of the property is a hilly transition area between the dunes and the forest through which the course weaves in and out. The routing changes direction on almost every hole, which keeps you on your toes, but also prevents you from experiencing the multi-hole beatdown into the wind that you often experience on out-and-back-routed links courses.
So the landscape offers incredible variety and the routing takes advantage of it. The design features one additional element that adds to the variety: an unusual mix of 6 par 3s, 6 par 4s, and 6 par 5s. I’m a bit less convinced about the merits of this. I suppose that par doesn’t really matter and regardless of the wind, a few of these par 5s will play like long (or not even that long) par 4s. Still, I think that the course could use two or three more strong par 4s and stretches of consecutive par 4s that differ from each other. The only consecutive par 4s here are holes two and three.
While the greens contours are similar to those next door in that they’re interesting but not over-the-top, the green surroundings here are quite a bit more challenging. There are several steep run-offs around these greens and in a good wind—which I experienced in both rounds I played and would imagine is quite common—they can be very difficult to hit. And missing can lead to some serious trouble. I suppose that the green complexes here were likely to end up a bit more severe than next door simply because the land is a lot hillier and many green sites needed to be built into heavily sloped areas. Still, I think that a few of the green complexes here could have been toned down a bit, given both the wind and the firmness of the course in the summer.
As on a lot of spectacular courses, the first hole isn’t too spectacular. From the back tees, it’s a very long 580 yard par 5, especially when playing right into the wind. There isn’t too much trouble between the tee and the green, save for one fairway bunker encroaching into the left side of the fairway about 110 yards short of the green and another about 25 yards short.
Now there are options off the tee here which are dictated by the hole location. The left side of the green is blind from all but the left side of the fairway. And the right side of the green is blind from all but the right. So you want to be on the same side of the fairway as the pin, which you can see from the tee, maybe with the assistance of your range finder…unless you are or have the vision of a pilot. While it’s not too hard to place your drive in the middle of this fairway, you have to negotiate the junk along the left or right edge of the fairway to get it into the optimal spot. The wind was blowing a bit too hard for me to be confident enough to try this and I was just happy to hit the fairway.
But it’s a very interesting concept and I think it works well. Wherever you drive it, make sure that you carry your approach up onto the green; if you miss the left side short, you can roll all the way back down into the junk. I suspect that this hole wouldn’t be so hard without wind, but I’m not sure how many are lucky enough to experience that.
The rest of us get to pick our comfort level with a diagonal carry up to the right and the hole plays more like 360-390 depending on which line we choose.. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen such a cape style drive where the shot varies so much depending on which line you pick. There’s open fairway well out to the right, but you can probably only go about 200 yards on this line unless you hit a good hook. Then there’s a more uphill carry of about 210 yards over a bunker which in a left-to-right wind is probably the most sensible for most of us. This line would be dangerous for a long hitter because the fairway runs out at about 250-265. They’ll need to go somewhere to the left (it’s about 265 over the bunker short and right of the green), but the fairway is very shallow on the other side.
While the green is large and not particularly interesting, the drive is one of the best that I’ve seen anywhere. I’m fortunate in that the line over the first bunker is just the right carry for me because there isn’t a lot of room for a long hitter to play left of that, unless they can go for the green. Still, they could always lay up to the right and as usual, that’d probably be best for the scorecard…if less fun.
Carry it or miss it a bit right and your ball will run well down the fairway (at least with the standard down wind), possibly to a career long drive. From here you’ll have a blind shot that asks only one question: can you carry a centerline bunker 50 yards short of the center of the green? If yes, pick a club that can just carry that and go for it. If not, lay well back. You probably can’t hold the green with your second, but the bunkers behind the green aren’t too bad.
If you’re a long hitter, the best way to play the hole is to bomb one along the cliff. While into the wind, it’s only between a 200 and 240 yard carry depending on the line and if you carry even part of the cliff, your ball will likely bound forward near the green. For those of us who don’t hit a long ball and are too scared to try this shot, there’s plenty of room out to the left (and, helpfully, a spotter).
It’s a puzzling hole if you layup but I think that’s because it’s meant to heavily favor those who go for the green and pull it off. Given the shot required to do that, I have no problem with it. This is one of the greatest short par 4s that I've seen.
It was also windier here both days than at Cabot Links. Now we played both morning rounds there and both afternoon rounds here and I can’t rule out that it just got more windy in the afternoon. But much of Cabot Cliffs is more than 75 feet above sea level while Cabot Links is just 15-30 feet above and I suspect that it’s usually more windy here. Cabot Cliffs is plenty wide enough to handle the wind but the combination of the wind and the steeper slopes throughout the course make it much more difficult to control the ball here. Still, the course record is much lower here than at Cabot Links (60 here vs. I think 65 or 66 for Cabot Links) so the course isn’t always more difficult.
As far as judging the courses, it would come down to how you weigh the importance of the spectacular vs. the subtle. This property afforded Coore and Crenshaw some spectacular opportunities and there’s no doubt that they took advantage of them. Cabot Links simply has nothing to compare to the sixteenth or seventeenth holes. I'm not sure that any architects could have done a better job with the extraordinary moments on the property than Coore and Crenshaw did.
But there’s not a lot like the little humps and bumps that you find around the greens at Cabot Links. I loved the shaping on and especially around the greens at Cabot Links and am always especially impressed when architects are able to create something really interesting on modest land. So I think I give the nod to Cabot Links. But I'm also not sure that you could have done that here--this property is quite hilly while Cabot Links is mostly gently rolling or flat. There were always going to have to be some pretty big slopes around these greens. I suppose the challenge here was the opposite; yes you can build a lot of spectacular-looking holes, but can you keep them from being too severe?
I think that Coore and Crenshaw succeeded in building a course that isn't too severe and you have to give them a lot of credit for that. I can think of a few highly regarded living architects who may have let things get a bit out of control on this property. The merit of something is not determined just by what it does and does well, but what it doesn’t do and could have done badly. Being a perfect 10 for beauty doesn't hurt either.